Hailey Baker, a senior at Quince Orchard High School in Gaithersburg, recognizes that the statistical risk of an attack there by an active shooter is low. “Overall, Montgomery County is a pretty safe area,” she says.
But news and video footage of the fatal shooting of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, in May left her sobbing and heavyhearted.
“With all the mass shootings around the country,” she says, “there is a sense of fear that everyone has.”
The annual number of mass shootings in the United States more than doubled from 272 in 2014 to 691 in 2021, according to the nonprofit Gun Violence Archive, which defines a mass shooting as one in which at least four people are injured or killed, not including the shooter. School shootings rose from 24 in 2018 to 34 in 2021, according to Education Week; 27 school shootings have been recorded as of Aug. 1 this year.
Other events are also animating that “sense of fear.” Last school year, many children struggled to resolve conflicts and displayed behavioral problems after the isolation of the pandemic, Montgomery County school officials say. And in January, when a 15-year-old boy was shot with a so-called “ghost gun” at Col. Zadok Magruder High School in Derwood, officials moved to make police more visible in schools—after having removed them from buildings in August 2021.
As students grab backpacks and parents send them off for a new academic year, Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) has adjusted its approach to school safety in ways that speak to both the realities and the perceptions of danger. Sometimes, data and experts indicate, those aspects conflict.
MCPS is investing in mental health services, security cameras and training. It’s adding security personnel and trying to maintain a law enforcement presence in schools while responding to criticisms about disproportionate interactions with students of color.
The investment in mental health has broad support but has been a struggle to execute. Last school year the district began recruiting 50 clinical social workers, formally advertising the positions in December, four months after police officers were removed. The first hires started in February, with others added through the spring and a revised goal of 34 in 12-month positions met by July 1.
Research has undercut the value of beefing up police and “hardening” physical security of buildings. The Uvalde attack has been held up as a failure of law enforcement; 376 officers descended on the school but did not intervene for an hour, according to officials.
Advocates, however, say properly trained officers can build vital relationships with students that prevent incidents that aren’t always captured in the data. The county’s high school principals have been united in their support of school resource officers (SRO) before the school board.
Some experts favor a combination of solutions that are backed by research.
Districts need a “both-and approach” to school safety, says Annette Anderson, deputy director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Schools at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. That means not just buying security equipment but also equipping staff to meet student needs through mental health and family services.
“In a school, the most important position is that of the trusted adult. We have to empower every adult in a school building to be connected to kids,” she says. “It’s not just enough to put mental health resources in the building. You also have to train every adult, from the cafeteria manager to the maintenance person to the recess worker to the classroom teachers,” on how to respond to students in need.
There were 697 “serious incidents” at county public schools—calls for service including assaults, weapons offenses and sex offenses—during the 2021-2022 academic year, according to data from the Montgomery County Police Department.
Community pressure amid the national racial reckoning following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020 prompted County Executive Marc Elrich to end the traditional SRO program in August 2021. The 26 officers who had each been assigned to one of 25 high schools and one alternative school were reassigned to a cluster of schools in the renamed community engagement officer (CEO) program.
That new approach makes it hard to construct a trend analysis of violence in MCPS, according to police. School officials who previously contacted their SRO—who may not have recorded each request for service—were as of last school year pinging the police dispatch center, which tallies all calls.
Nationally, educators are increasingly uneasy. Forty percent of those surveyed by Education Week in June said they felt less safe than they did five years ago.
Last school year, North Bethesda Middle School seventh grade teacher Ben Israel says, it wasn’t until the fourth quarter that administrators conducted a lockdown drill, in which students learn how to respond to an attack, such as by staying silent in a locked and darkened classroom or by exiting the building. “It’s very problematic when you consider how important being prepared is for these kind of emergency situations,” he says.
A day after the Uvalde tragedy, Israel and fellow teachers were discussing the threat of violence and their careers.
“You don’t go into this job saying, ‘I’m going to be in danger at some point during the course of my work.’ You go into it because you want to help young people,” says Israel, who is on leave this school year to work as a member organizer for the Montgomery County Education Association, the teachers’ union. “We can’t be expected to be martyrs.”
In the Magruder shooting, authorities allege, Steven Alston Jr., then 17, bought a 9mm ghost gun (which can be assembled from a kit) and shot then-15-year-old DeAndre Thomas in a bathroom.
Thomas was found by a security guard. He lay in a coma for weeks and has had numerous surgeries, his mother testified at a hearing.
Alston was not located until two hours after the incident. He is set to be tried as an adult on attempted murder charges in February.
An after-action report released by MCPS called for more training of district employees and first responders and a review of communication protocols. Montgomery County police Chief Marcus Jones also complained publicly that student witnesses took to social media instead of calling 911.
Dana Noga’s son, then a sophomore, was at Magruder that day. Around 1:30 p.m. he texted her to say the school was in lockdown and to check her email. There, a message from Magruder said the school was responding to a student health issue. At 5:30 she watched a news briefing about the shooting, but it wasn’t until 7:10 that her son got off the bus near their home in Olney.
Noga and other parents were unhappy with the vague initial email and others that followed.
“It was an incredible nightmare,” Noga says. “I hope for more transparency” by the school system in communicating during a crisis.
Already a proponent of SROs, Noga became a stronger supporter after the shooting and joined Community Partners for Public Safety, a nonpartisan group that has advocated for SROs since 2009.
Montgomery County is the only district in Maryland that has transitioned away from an SRO program and one of only a few nationally, according to the National Association of School Resource Officers. About 70% of Americans approve of placing armed officers in schools, according to a 2021 study in Criminology and Public Policy.
After the Magruder shooting, Jones and then-Interim Superintendent of Schools Monifa McKnight revisited the question of a police presence in schools. (McKnight became permanent superintendent in July.)
Police and MCPS reached a new agreement in April. Under the CEO 2.0 safety model, officers have access to a private office in a high school. They check in daily but are not stationed permanently in a building. CEOs can be asked to participate in school-based events such as career days and to assist with athletic events or other activities. As with SROs, CEOs are not to be involved in discipline.
Police Capt. Stacey Flynn, who coordinates the CEO program with all 26 officers (many of them former SROs), says the hybrid approach lets principals invite in officers—or minimize their presence. “It gives us a little bit of flexibility in our response,” she says.
Police and administrators gathered in July for training under the new model. A nonemergency number was announced for school staff to reach police. The agreement lists 12 events, such as robbery and weapons possession, in which school employees must contact police and spells out whether police or schools take the lead in investigating them. The session promoted flexibility in the schools’ handling of most misconduct as teachable moments.
At the event, McKnight said many students returned from virtual learning “scarred” from disruptions and in need of support. “While violent behaviors like fighting and weapons can occasionally become a reality in our schools, they are not a reality that we accept,” she said. “School leaders and police and the entire community must invest…to make sure that safety for our students is our first priority.”
In the past few years, MCPS has put money into security vestibules, requiring visitors to be buzzed in and then to sign in before advancing into the school. Only two schools of the district’s 210 remain on the list for installation.
Closed-circuit television systems have been expanded recently in the elementary schools, according to Ed Clarke, chief safety officer for MCPS.
In addition, 12 new, non-police, roving security personnel have been assigned to elementary schools to help with emergency drills and to support principals with safety issues. Other security coordinators have been hired, along with a full-time safety trainer.
Middle and high schools already have trained, unarmed security staffs patrolling halls and monitoring student behavior.
McKnight says more proactive steps are needed, with an emphasis this year on training and communication.
In an “incident command” training session in July, principals, security staff and central office leadership focused on emergency responses. “We never really know when evil may knock on the front door of a school,” Clarke says. “It takes a village approach.”
Recently, state training requirements for SROs (which the county applies to CEOs) increased from 40 to 70 hours. Topics include de-escalation, restorative justice practices, trauma-informed counseling and implicit bias. This summer, local sessions were added for MCPS administrators, security leaders and others.
Jones says the new CEO 2.0 model lets officers tailor relationships with school communities. “Every high school is different, and they may not have the same public safety needs as the next,” he says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter approach.”
To foster connections and build trust, Jones says he plans to conduct town hall meetings at high schools. Officials say there will be quarterly monitoring of the CEO 2.0 program. A dashboard is being developed to track responses in real time and improve transparency.
Most recent national data offers little evidence that more policing in schools leads to increased safety.
An analysis of school shootings from 1999-2018 in the Journal of Adolescent Health shows the presence of an SRO was not associated with any reduction in the severity of school shootings.
A 2021 study in JAMA Network Open, a monthly open access medical journal published by the American Medical Association, found that rates of death were higher at school shootings when armed guards were on the premises. Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at Hamline University in Minnesota, and her co-authors note that the presence of a weapon increases aggression and does not deter violence.
Researchers say the problem with more policing or the creation of a hardened environment, which have not proved to be deterrents, is that they can have negative consequences.
“You have a lot more arrests for minor offenses,” says Eric Madfis of the University of Washington Takoma and the author of The Risk of School Rampage. “School resource officers tend to view problems as crime problems, as opposed to disciplinary issues. Things that conventionally would have been just handled in the school get elevated.”
The U.S. Department of Education reported that Black students accounted for 31.6% of students arrested at school or a school-related activity in 2017-2018—twice their share of student enrollment. MCPS data in 2020 showed that Black children represented one-fifth of the student population but nearly half of student arrests in the previous three years.
County Councilmember Will Jawando led efforts in 2020 to remove SROs and says data from the CEO 2.0 model should be closely monitored to ensure proportionality in the treatment of students of color. He says he’d like to see the district address the causes of interpersonal conflict, expand restorative justice practices and employ more adults trained in youth development—with police responding only when necessary.
Kyson Taylor, a 2022 graduate of Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville, also pushed for policing changes at MCPS and helped start a criminal justice reform group.
“A lot of students of color don’t feel comfortable with police on school campuses,” Taylor says. He says little changed with the CEO model since officers are still visible. “We are experiencing the same trauma as with the SRO program.”
He maintains the well-being of Black and Latino students is being sacrificed to appease parents understandably “freaked out” by the Magruder shooting.
The delay in the police intervening in Uvalde may not boost trust between communities and officers. But county police leaders insist that such a situation would not be repeated here.
“We have trained significantly in this area for a very long time,” Jones says. “We would go in and address the threat immediately.”
Advocates say officers are in schools not to arrest people or enforce discipline, but to be a resource—and there are benefits to consistency.
“We’ve made this such a political football, and the people that are suffering are going to be the kids,” says Joe Lowery, a retired SRO with MCPS. “The key to safety is having those relationships.”
In July, Community Partners for Public Safety hosted a webinar to highlight the value of SROs.
“Historically, here in Montgomery County, we had a best practice school resource officer program before the issue was politicized and our nationally recognized SRO program was eliminated based on a national narrative,” Susan Burkinshaw, co-founder of the group, said at the session. She referenced a 2016 Office of Legislative Oversight report on the school-to-prison pipeline in Montgomery County showing low suspension rates and falling juvenile arrest rates. She considers the CEO program “reactive” and “unproven.”
At the event, Afsara Nowrin, a 2022 Quince Orchard graduate, cited her bond with Lowery as an important resource her freshman year. When she was a danger to herself at home, she recalled, police summoned Lowery, who helped resolve the situation.
Advocates say examples of officers intervening are not always widely known.
MCPS principals, including Jennifer Baker (no relation to Hailey Baker) at Walter Johnson High School, have long supported the SRO program. She points to a 2018 incident in which a student confided in an SRO about a teen posting a photo of himself online with an AR-15 rifle and the caption “school shooter.” The teen in the photo was charged with threatening mass violence.
Baker says she maintained daily contact last school year with the officer assigned to the WJ cluster, and that the officer will join weekly security meetings.
“Schools are on high alert. We are very aware of what is happening around the country,” she says.
What would make schools safer? On a list of possible responses in an Education Week survey, teachers and school and district leaders favored action on gun ownership and mental health resources more than adding security features and arming school staff.
There is no evidence that school safety measures reduce firearm violence, according to a 2019 study in the journal Violence and Gender. The ideal solution, the researchers conclude, is to prevent youths from gaining access to firearms.
Though no method is proven to stop shootings, some experts recommend schools practice lockdown drills and try to keep kids from bringing weapons to school. They emphasize addressing root causes and providing mental health services.
Anderson, of Johns Hopkins, says school shootings continue to increase despite schools and colleges spending about $3 billion a year on security products and services. “We’re not lessening the problem. I think maybe the issue is that we are going after the wrong problem,” Anderson says. She does not believe that police belong in schools but suggests toughening gun laws and prohibiting sales to anyone under age 21.
Federal lawmakers in June passed the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, the first major federal gun legislation in decades. It funds state red-flag programs that can bar gun access to people in crisis and those convicted of certain domestic violence crimes. It also increases funding for mental health programs and school security.
Maryland has some of the nation’s strictest gun laws and bars anyone under 21 from possessing a firearm.
Christa Geraci has seen safety measures ramp up over 15 years teaching first grade at Goshen Elementary School in Gaithersburg but would like to see more emphasis on social-emotional supports.
“The doors are locked. There is one entrance. There are cameras in the school. We practice drills,” says Geraci, who has kept her classroom blinds mostly shut as a precaution. “I feel like we are well prepared…but we have to balance it with the little kids because we don’t want to frighten them.”
Geraci does not like the idea of a security guard or police officer stationed at her building. “I want elementary school to feel warm and inviting and fun. I don’t want it to feel like we’re in prison,” she says.
Elsewhere in the nation, officials have encouraged arming teachers at schools, as a deterrent. A 2020 Rand analysis found no evidence it increases school safety. Arming teachers comes with risks, such as accidental shootings, and the country’s largest teacher unions, including the National Education Association, oppose training teachers to use guns.
Geraci, like Israel, is on leave this year. She says the thought of being told to take a gun to school to protect students makes her sick. “I think it’s very unsafe and ridiculous. It’s not something I would ever be comfortable with,” she says.
This school year, the district prioritized access to mental health services. Its budget was approved with $8 million to build so-called wellness “spaces,” where students can access such services, by summer’s end in all high schools. They join five wellness “centers” already at Gaithersburg, Northwood, Seneca Valley, Watkins Mill and Wheaton high schools, where health care is also offered. A sixth at Kennedy High School is slated to open in September.
The sites are staffed through the county’s Department of Health and Human Services. Funds were budgeted separately to hire therapists, case managers, youth development specialists and community service employees, says Monica Martin, a senior administrator at the department. Funding has been approved for the personnel, and the county is moving quickly to fill positions, but there is a staffing shortage in the field, Martin says.
“For many, this is going to feel like too little, too late,” she says, referring to the need for mental health services during the pandemic. “The crisis got so big, so quickly that we’re definitely going to be in catch-up mode for a while.”
MCPS allocated $1.6 million to set up in-person and telehealth therapy. A variety of personnel manage behavior threat assessment teams.
When young people feel there is no other option than violence against themselves or someone else, Martin says, it’s often the result of a past trauma building up—a failure of the system to intervene earlier. Having more professionals on a campus who can pay attention is aimed at preventing violence, she says.
Baker, the Quince Orchard senior, says the new social worker in her school is a welcome addition who will make students feel safer.
Moved after Uvalde to act, Baker donated $30 earned from her minimum-wage job to March for Our Lives, a student-led movement backing gun restrictions. She joined the group’s march on the National Mall in June. But when a man yelled that he had a gun, the crowd ran and Baker was terrified. Though a false alarm, the episode gave her nightmares.
“With incidents like that, it brings a sense of trauma,” she says, putting in perspective that violence wasn’t just something she saw on the news. “No matter how many measures schools put in place, it’s still really scary to go to school sometimes.”
This story appears in the September/October 2022 issue of Bethesda Magazine.